The Road Ahead
Last year, trucks moved 73% — 11.5 billion tons — of the freight in the U.S., making trucks, and truckers, crucial to the U.S. economy. With automation in trucking projected to grow 22% over the next 10 years, a team of UMass Amherst researchers has received a grant to explore how automation will affect the role of American long-haul truckers.
An interdisciplinary group of researchers led by Shannon Roberts, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, has been awarded nearly $2 million over four years by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Future of Work Program.
“We know that, when automation is introduced into trucks, it changes the role of a trucker,” Roberts said. “The question we are asking is, how do we examine and improve upon the future of work in long-haul trucking not by focusing on technology development, but rather by focusing on the trucker?”
Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of Sociology and co-principal investigator on the study, noted that, “unlike other research projects on the future of work in long-haul trucking that assume driverless automation, our interdisciplinary, NSF-funded project centers the driver in the process of imagining the future of work in trucking.”
Roberts added that the role technology plays and the needs of truckers have to be carefully balanced. “Let’s focus on taking the best of both worlds to make sure they work together seamlessly. In the end, that will reap the greatest benefit.”
“Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”
Automation has many benefits, like fewer crashes and better efficiency, but that doesn’t mean the human should be removed from the equation entirely, she added. “Technology is good at handling consistent situations with predictable, rational people, but humans are not predictable, rational beings. Because of this, technology will not be able to react to everything that might happen on the road. It’s impossible. We will need a person in the truck.”
At the same time, automation can’t make workers feel expendable, she said. “People take pride in what they do. We don’t want to take everything out of that job such that people are unsatisfied and unhappy. Many people get into trucking as a means to move into the middle-class lifestyle with a high-school diploma or a GED. It’s a means of betterment for a large chunk of the population.”
Roberts added that there’s a significant equity factor to consider as well. She sees how automation can also help relieve the ongoing trucker shortage by making the field more accessible to people who are underrepresented in the field — veterans, women, and minorities.
Ultimately, these questions converge on a topic she calls the human-truck symbiosis. “How do we take advantage of all the things that people are good at doing, and all the things that technology is good at doing, to make sure we have a system that works really well?”
Such a complex landscape requires an interdisciplinary team to evaluate it from all angles. Other principal investigators include Henry Renski, professor of Regional Planning; Shlomo Zilberstein, professor of Computer Science; Michael Knodler, professor of Civil Engineering; and Robin Riessman of the UMass Transportation Center as senior personnel.
Some of the methods the team plans to use to collect the information include ride-alongs with truckers, participatory design with truckers, and workforce-development analysis.
“We’re working with this workforce — that is, truckers,” Roberts said. “One of the things that will make this project successful is our stakeholders.”